Flags of Our Fathers
Director : Clint Eastwood
Screenplay : William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Ryan Phillippe (John “Doc” Bradley), Jesse Bradford (Rene Gagnon), Adam Beach (Ira Hayes), John Benjamin Hickey (Keyes Beech), John Slattery (Bud Gerber), Barry Pepper (Mike Strank), Jamie Bell (Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski), Paul Walker (Hank Hansen), Robert Patrick (Col. Chandler Johnson), Neal McDonough (Cpt. Severance), Melanie Lynskey (Pauline Harnois), Tom McCarthy (James Bradley), Chris Bauer (Commandant Vandergrift), Judith Ivey (Belle Block), Myra Turley (Madeline Evelley)
In Flags of Our Fathers, producer/director Clint Eastwood resurrects the specter of World War II, not for a simplistic celebration of the momentous sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation,” but rather to question the nature of heroism. Like any symbol, heroes are social constructs, their deeds both real and mythical elevated to celebratory status by cultural consensus or, as the film shows again and again, by a polished public relations machine in desperate need of pushing war bonds. The truth doesn’t matter if the image sells.
Every American is familiar with Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, a tiny, 12-mile barren island that was the site of a crucial monthlong battle between U.S. forces and thousands of dug-in Japanese soldiers. It’s the kind of image that comes along once in a lifetime, neatly encapsulating our highest hopes and deepest dreams. The photo was splashed across every newspaper and became the central icon of U.S. military pride and cohesiveness, leading to renewed support for the war.
The story in Flags of Our Fathers concerns the identity of the six men who hoisted the flag that day and how they were deployed by politicians and career military men to sell the war to the American public. Three of them--the medic John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and soldiers Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)--are dragged along on a garish publicity tour that includes such questionable events as re-enacting the flag-raising on a papier-mâché mountain before thousands at Soldier Field and eating at dozens of state dinners replete with ice sculptures and cakes shaped like the photograph (in one nauseatingly ironic moment, a piece of ice cream sculpted after the photo is drowned is sticky red strawberry sauce).
The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Crash) splinters the story across three different timeframes: the battle at Iwo Jima, the publicity tour, and Doc Bradley’s son interviewing survivors about what happened. This gives the film a sense of fragmentation and divisiveness that is thematically consistent with the story’s emphasis on the constructed nature of military heroism as public relations campaign, but it makes for an awkward and dramatically limp viewing experience. For all the sound and fury Eastwood musters, Flags of Our Fathers is distressingly flat.
Even when the film comes alive in fits and spurts, it reminds us of how unprovoking the rest of it is. Eastwood brings all of his considerable gifts to bear on the film’s battle sequences, which are appropriately terrifying in their soldier’s eye point-of-view realism (they are also aided by cinematographer Tom Stern washing out the film’s visual palette, resulting in images that could easily be mistaken for sepia-toned black-and-white). Yet, the war-is-hell immediacy is frequently undermined by unnecessarily video-game like images from the cockpits of soaring fighter planes, not to mention numerous CGI effects that are disastrously ineffective and break whatever spell Eastwood had created.
Eastwood is clearly intent on overwhelming us with the scope of the war, which is why we get numerous high-angle extreme long shots that let us see just how many massive battleships were perched in the waters just off the blackish beaches of Iwo Jima. The violence is hard, fast, and furious, suggesting the fury of war without having to linger on the carnage (one of the film’s most devastating moments involves Doc seeing the mutilated corpse of one of his friends, and all we have to see is his face to know just how horrible it is). For all their effectiveness, though, the film’s battle sequences feel haunted, as have all war movies made since 1998, by Saving Private Ryan--from the mixing of elegant tracking shots with handheld chaos, to the grisly glimpses of shattered bodies, to the presence of Barry Pepper, the powerhouse mish-mash of aesthetic devices originally pioneered by Steven Spielberg (who also co-produced Flags), cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and editor Michael Kahn have lost none of their bite.
Too bad the rest of Flags of Our Fathers, namely its conventionally dramatic moments, carried a similar bite. With the exception of Ira, a Native American who is particularly tortured by his “hero” label and subsequently drowns himself in alcohol, the film is surprisingly devoid of genuine emotion. Ryan Phillippe plays Doc like a man stranded, and Jesse Bradford turns Rene into a slightly smug, but ultimately forgettable opportunist. With few exceptions, there are no intimate scenes between the men; their relationships are played out on the public stage, which robs them of interiority. We never feel like we know them beyond the essentials, so that despite being based on real people, they come across as two-dimensional ciphers. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising given that the film as a whole plays like a deconstructive history lesson--fascinating in and of itself, but devoid of the kind of dramatic urgency that would transcend its devotion to the specifics of time and place.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Warner Bros.